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Throwaway bag fee spreads to DC 'burbs

Montgomery County's leaders have now done what Baltimore city's and Maryland's have balked at doing - impose a nickel tax on throwaway retail bags to fight litter.

On Wednesday (May 11) County Executive Ike Leggett signed the bag-charge bill passed recently by the County Council, saying he hoped the new law would make shoppers more environmentally conscious rather than raise a lot of revenue.

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It's modeled on the nickel-bag tax that took effect in 2010 in the District of Columbia, which has been credited with substantially reducing disposable bag use and litter there.

The Montgomery law, which takes effect Jan. 1, would levy a five-cent tax on almost every paper or plastic carryout bag provided by retail establishments in the county. Exceptions include bags for prescription drugs, newspapers, goods sold at farmers markets and other seasonal vendors' stands and prepared foods or drinks taken from restaurants. Merchants would get a penny back on every bag to help cover their administrative costs.

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Officials estimate the bag tax will raise about $1.5 million in revenues its first year, which would be dedicated to help pay for controlling storm-water polllution, restoring streams and cleaning up litter. Plastic bags are one of the top four items found littering stream banks and clogging storm drains in the county.  Officials figure they spent about $3 million in 2009 on litter prevention and cleanup.

"This is good for the environment, and I expect many people who are not already doing this to adjust," Leggett said in a news release. " As I have said before, we do not see this as a source of revenue. The more people who use reusable bags, the less revenue to the County and that is just fine."

In Baltimore, where tons of floating trash and debris wash into the Inner Harbor every month, City Council mulled a heftier 25-cent bag tax or even banning disposable sacks altogether, as San Francisco did. But retailers and bag manufacturers protested, and after a protracted debate the council opted instead to require retailers just to promote recycling of plastic bags, or switch to paper.

Legislation that would tax non-reusable bags statewide has gone nowhere in Annapolis the past two years, despite support from environmental groups.

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